How did Ben Elton's "The Wright Way" get it so wrong?

The old comedy adage says that if there's nothing funny left to say, make a penis joke. Perhaps this explains why <em>The Wright Way</em> is just one big knob gag, then.

Ben Elton’s new sitcom, The Wright Way, was likely doomed from the moment the first scathing review went online. Coming from a widely-disliked figure like Elton - the turncoat, the sell-out - its reputation preceded it, other critics bundled on, and pretty soon everybody knew for certain that it was going to be a stinker. (At the time of writing, Wikipedia lists its genre as “Anti-comedy”.) The Twitter LOL-vultures circled.

As fun as the Twitter competition for the most cutting put-down was, there’s also reason to be slightly wary of this feedback loop of mass instant criticism. While online word-of-mouth can propel slow-burn, boxset-ready series to hit status, the real-time rush-to-judgement also has the potential to condemn shows before they’ve had a chance to find their feet.

Sitcoms are especially vulnerable to this; they’re notoriously hard to get right straight away. Test audiences hated the first episode of Friends; Men Behaving Badly had to lose its star and move to a different broadcaster before audiences embraced it; Blackadder didn’t reach its comic potential until they brought in a bold young talent called Ben something-or-other to shake up the second series. Quite simply, it’s a flat-out foolhardy and ignorant act to pass judgement on a sitcom’s true worth just a few episodes in.

Unless it’s The Wright Way, of course, because it’s utter, utter crap.

The second episode landed with a sickly thud on our televisions last night, and might have - somehow – managed to be worse than the first episode. A shockingly lazy calamity of a show, its many, many superficial failures serve only as a light and fluffy distraction from the vast, gaping flaws at its core. (The central character, David Haig’s health and safety officer Gerald Wright, is a crudely Frankensteined composite of Victor Meldrew and Gordon Brittas, who splits his time evenly between furiously railing against the petty annoyances of modern life and taking great pleasure in causing the petty annoyances of modern life. This is because Ben Elton only had so many jokes to go round and nobody could be bothered to tell him that it made absolutely no sense.)

Two episodes in, we can now start to sense the shape of the show’s broader trends. For example, some of the characters have catchphrases! David Haig’s catchphrase is “don’t get me started”. His daughter’s lesbian lover’s catchphrase is “this is such a YouTube moment” (because that is totes what all the young people say). Mina Anwar’s catchphrase is shouting.

If something wasn’t funny once, try repeating it. An entire section of dialogue about chest waxing is replicated, beat for beat, in both episodes. A plot about Wright’s ex-wife coming over for tea somehow takes two episodes to set up (possibly this counts as a “story arc”?) A character says the title of the show. Twice.

In what is clearly intended to be the series’ signature comic riff, each episode features a scene in which Wright constructs a series of tortuous acronyms on a whiteboard, unwittingly spelling out a rude phrase. These phrases, it turns out, also handily serve as the show’s epitaph:

As these demonstrate, above all else, the show hews tightly to the comic rule that if there’s nothing funny left to say, make a penis joke. Penis. Penis. Words that mean penis. Things that look like penises. Penis. At one point a character talks about vaginas, just to keep the audience guessing. Then back to penis. Penis. Penis acronyms. Actions that look like a character is using his penis. Penis.

Now: David Haig is a fine comic actor, and both he and his groin are veterans of many classically bawdy British comedies. His is a grizzled, old-timey groin that’s been the punchline to many a set-up, the prat of many falls, the penis ex machina that plugged a hundred plot holes. Like Rutger Hauer’s replicant in Blade Runner, this groin has seen things you people wouldn’t believe. And yet, there was a moment last night, as Haig’s battle-hardened, farce-calloused groin wearily humped a dustbin for the second time that episode, when - if you were watching in HD, perhaps - you could just about see his groin embracing the inevitability of death.

This sense of resignation in the face of doom pervades the whole shooting match. Elton could perhaps be forgiven for having lost his hunger, living as he does in a giant fort made of money and Queen CDs. But everywhere you look there are signs that nobody involved in the show gave much of a toss. Characters drinking out of mugs that are obviously empty. Haig spending most of a scene sitting at table where his face isn’t properly lit. Camera placements that can’t quite remember who was supposed to be in shot. And a dead-eyed cast, mechanically mugging their way through the script in the hope that if they just do everything loudly enough, their agents might return their children unharmed.

(My personal favourite is Beattie Edmonson’s increasingly desperate expressions while hanging around in the back of shots, trying to find something plausible to do with her face as she waits for her next line to stagger into view. Seriously, try re-watching it with the sound off, just focusing on her. It’s such a YouTube moment.)

So, bad show is bad. What of it? The problem here is not so much that somebody made a lousy TV show, it’s what they didn’t make instead. TV commissions are a zero-sum game - there are only so many pilots that can be ordered, only so many series made. And there are too many young writers desperate for a chance to try things out, to learn and fail and get better, for the BBC to be easily forgiven for shovelling time and money towards complacent, will-that-do dross like The Wright Way.

There’s no formula to comedy. Any commissioning policy worth a damn will produce as many failures as successes. But at least fail by trying.

This is why the Twitter hate-watchalong, entertaining as it was, was doomed to run out of steam long before episode two was halfway through. The Wright Way is not so bad it’s good, it’s so bad it’s simply exhausting. How can you work up the energy to mock something for missing the target when nobody involved seems to have cared enough to even aim for it? The sheer number of ungiven fucks have a profoundly enervating, soul-sapping quality. It’s like J K Rowling’s Dementors, sucking all the joy from a room. There’s just nothing funny left to say.

Penis.

 

The cast of Ben Elton's "The Wright Way", making serious faces while wearing hard hats. Photograph: BBC
Rabinson/Wikimedia
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Are we taking Woody Allen for granted?

In some ways, Allen is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect.

Do you know what a state Annie Hall was in when it first emerged from the editing room? Maybe you’ve heard that its original title was Anhedonia – referring to Alvy Singer’s inability to experience pleasure – but it wasn’t just a title. That was the film that Allen shot: a Fellini-esque stream of consciousness, honeycombed with flashbacks to Alvy’s Coney Island childhood, featuring a murder mystery, a Nazi interrogation dream, an elevator trip to hell and a basketball game between a team of philosophers and the New York Knicks.

“Terrible, completely unsalvageable,” said Allen’s co-writer, Marshall Brickman, of the film they saw as a rough cut in late 1976. Only one thing worked: the subplot involving Alvy’s romance with Annie Hall. “I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship,’” Allen later said. “I mean, the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.”

His reaction to the success of Annie Hall – his biggest hit at the box office at the time and the winner of four Academy Awards – was the same reaction he had to any of his films that went over too well with the public: he disparaged it, while quietly absorbing its lessons. Bits and pieces of Annie Hall showed up in his other films for the next two decades – Alvy’s Coney Island childhood resurfacing in Radio Days, the murder mystery in Manhattan Murder Mystery, the elevator trip to hell in Deconstructing Harry – while reshoots and rewrites became a staple of most of his pictures, granting him the freedom almost of a novelist working through successive drafts.

“It was remarkable what he did for me,” Diane Keaton later said of Allen’s ear for Annie’s Chippewa Falls language: self-conscious, neurotic, a little jejune in her attempts to sound smarter than she is, “flumping around, trying to find a sentence”. Annie Hall was a breech delivery, as indeed it had to be, as the first film of Allen’s that was almost entirely taken over by another performer, a voice other than his. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Allen studied the great magicians and in many ways his greatest achievement as a director has been to make himself disappear.

Introverts often grow up thinking that they are invisible – a fear, perhaps, but a strangely comforting one and something of a sustaining fantasy should they become famous. These days, Allen has the invisibility of ubiquity, noiselessly producing a film every year for critics to take a whack at: is it good Woody or bad Woody?

Allen is a figure occluded by the scandals and speculation of his private life, which still sends tabloid Geiger counters crackling, some two decades after his break with Mia Farrow. The headlines could almost be the pitch for a Woody Allen film, were it not that Allen has already made it. In Zelig, the chameleonic hero is, you may remember, “sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages and performing unnecessary dental extractions”, before finding redemption in some Lindberghian derring-do – an accurate forecast, in a sense, of Allen’s return to making crowd-pleasers in the mid-1990s. Except that Zelig was released in 1983. On the rise and fall of Woody Allen, Allen, it seems, was there first.

His 46th film opens in cinemas on 11 September. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dishevelled, alcoholic philosophy professor who decides to pull himself out of his funk with a spot of murder, which has long replaced masturbation as the favoured activity of the Allen male. I’ll leave it to Allen’s old shrinks to tease out the connection between comedy and murder, spotted by Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious – why else do we talk of comedians “killing” it, or “slaying” their audience, if not for the release of hostility common to both? And I’ll leave it to the critics to decide the relation of Irrational Man to the earlier Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The problem with late Allen is not that the films are bad necessarily but that they are sketchy: spindly and dashed off, the result of a too-easy passage from page to screen. Allen’s has to be the shortest in show business. A film a year, as regular as clockwork, with zero studio interference. He is the one genuine success story to emerge from the big, hairy, super-freak auteurist experiment of the 1970s – the auteur of auteurs. Francis Ford Coppola crashed and burned. Martin Scorsese crashed and came back. Robert Altman was driven into exile, Terrence Malick into early retirement. Who would have guessed that the only film-maker to keep chugging along would be the writer of What’s New Pussycat?

It may tell us something about auteurism as an idea, certainly as a production model in Hollywood, which has always reacted to success by throwing money at it, granting film-makers ever greater control – a dubious drug denying them the artistic constraints and collaboration in which their creativity first flourished. It vacuum-packs their talent.

The one-man-band aspects of Allen’s career mask the juice that he gets from his co-conspirators: Keaton, but also Dianne Wiest, Farrow and Judy Davis. Most of his biggest box-office successes have been co-written: Annie Hall and Manhattan (with Brickman), Bullets Over Broadway (with Douglas McGrath). “The first thing he says is, ‘If you’re not comfortable, change it,’” said Wiest of working on Hannah and Her Sisters.

“It’s as if he’s got a feather in his hand and he blows it and it goes off in a dozen directions,” said Jeff Daniels after starring in The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a lovely image, for that is what the film is about: the unruliness of creation running disobediently beyond its creators’ grasp. This is the great Allen theme. It is the theme of Bullets Over Broadway; of his other great farce about artistic creation, “The Kugelmass Episode”, his New Yorker short story about a professor of humanities who drops into the pages of Madame Bovary to conduct an affair with its heroine; and of his one-act play Writer’s Block, in which the characters of an unfinished manuscript push open the drawer and take over the author’s Connecticut house. It is the theme of all of the romances, too, in which women grow, Pygmalionishly, beneath the green fingers of the Allen male, only to outgrow and leave him.

The biggest dead patches in his work, on the other hand, have come when he was most cut off from collaborators: the run of movies he made in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Farrow, clenched in silent agony and overdosed in brown; or the series of comedies that he dug out of his drawer for DreamWorks in the early 2000s – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Any­thing Else – long after he had lost interest, or could summon the energy for farce.

In some ways, Allen today is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect. He encourages his actors to change his scripts as much as they want, but who is going to pluck up the courage to tell the quadruple Oscar winner that kids don’t “make love” any more, or fall for “nihilistic pessimism”, or name-drop O’Neill, Sartre and Tennessee Williams? Jason Biggs, the star of American Pie and American Pie 2 and Allen’s lead in his 2003 film Anything Else? I think not.

One should, however, resist the temptation to give up on him. Midnight in Paris moved with the sluggishness of melted Camembert but Blue Jasmine had the leanness of a cracked whip, in part because in Cate Blanchett Allen found a collaborator willing to go the distance with him on a theme close to his heart: female vengeance. “Take after take after take of very exhaustive, emotional scenes,” recalled Alec Baldwin. “I sat there at the end of the day and thought, ‘She is unbelievable.’”

If Allen’s early films mined comedy from Thurber-like fantasists and romantic Machiavels and his mid-period work drew rueful comedy from reality’s refusal to co-operate, his late work seems most preoccupied by the painful urge to peel the world of illusion, to see it stripped bare. He is now at work on his 47th film, starring Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Parker Posey and Bruce Willis – and the excitement there is surely at the thought of Willis, once the king of the wisecrack and exploding fireball, now 60, collaborating with a film-maker deep into his own twilight. Both men could well find each other’s groove, or, better still, shake one another out of it. Yipikaye, pussycat.

Tom Shone’s “Woody Allen: a Retrospective” will be published by Thames & Hudson on 11 September

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism